Is Disney too big?

How many movies have you seen this year? If I listed the 10 highest grossing movies of the year, there’s a 50% chance you saw a Disney movie. The average American usually sees 5-6 movies in theaters each year and Disney is becoming an increasingly large portion of those movies. A big question the movie industry has been considering this year is whether or not Disney has gotten too big.

Now, I’m a total Disney fanboy. Disney movies were some of the first movies I ever saw growing up, and I sold my soul to Marvel right around the time the first Avengers came out in 2012. But I think it’s important to be able to be critical of things you love, when necessary.

Disney has dominated the box office in the past few years, but in 2019 it reached a new level with the acquisition of 20th Century Fox. Disney movies make up around 40% of tickets sold in the US. Through the first half of 2019, Disney made more than $2 billion at the box office. The next highest gross was Warner Brothers with $858 million. That’s a pretty massive jump. And as of October 2019, Disney holds five of the 10 highest grossing movies of the year (and co-produced a sixth) – all of which have made more than $1 billion. And that’s WITHOUT Frozen II and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

From Boxofficemojo.com (as of 11/21/19)

The fear is that the domination of Disney and mega-blockbusters will drown out smaller, riskier and more experimental movies. When certain kinds of movies continue to flop, studios will stop making them. Plus, expensive blockbusters demand more screens so more people will see them. That doesn’t leave much room for those other movies to be seen.

So, you may ask, why don’t other movies open on non-Disney weekends? Well, that’s getting harder to do. Disney has carved out the best opening weekends for its biggest properties for the next few years. Beginning in 2021, Marvel alone will release four movies a year. Marvel fans may be foaming at the mouth at that idea, but when those movies stay at the top of the box office and on thousands of screens for two or three weeks after opening, that becomes eight or twelve weekends dominated by Marvel. Then throw Pixar, Star Wars, Fox and proper Disney movies in the mix and there’s very little room for much else.

But why does it matter if Disney keeps making great movies?

Well…are they? Let’s look at Disney’s billion-dollar movies this year:

  • Marvel continues to be a critical darling. While not everyone loves these movies, there’s no denying that Endgame was a generation-defining movie and an incredibly satisfying ending to the first phase of the MCU. Captain Marvel was a solid new entry for the franchise, even if it’s not one of Marvel’s best solo films. Spider-Man: Far From Home (co-produced with Sony) had decent reviews and probably benefitted from a post-Endgame boost.
  • Toy Story 4 was a surprisingly solid entry to Pixar’s flagship franchise. After Toy Story 3, most people didn’t think 4 would be necessary, but it justified its existence and told a compelling story.
  • And then there’s the two live-action remakes: Aladdin and The Lion King. Did we need these? Absolutely not. Aladdin is by far the better of the two, developing Jasmine’s character and an acceptable performance by Will Smith as the Genie. But Jafar’s characterization was disappointing and giving Genie a love interest was a bizarre choice. At least it made some new choices though. The Lion King stuck so closely to the original story that it was almost an identical cut. The visuals in the remake were incredible, but by going all-in on the realism of the animals, we lost all emotion and expression in their characters.

So how are all these movies dominating the box office if not all of them are great?

Nostalgia (especially for the 80s and 90s) is king right now in Hollywood, and all five of these movies using it to their advantage. Aladdin and Lion King are remakes of two of the most beloved Disney movies of all time. Disney knew audiences would run to the theater to relive these stories and hear those iconic songs again.  

Toy Story 4 drew on nostalgia from the 25-year history of its franchise, even bringing back Bo Peep, a character that hadn’t been seen since 1999. The original Toy Story was groundbreaking in both storytelling and technology and the series is one of a few where each installment is critically acclaimed.

Even Marvel drew on its own nostalgia. Endgame was marketed as the culmination of an 11-year-old, 22-movie franchise and a lot of the marketing for both Endgame and Infinity War called back to the early days of the MCU. Interestingly, Captain Marvel also drew on 90s nostalgia this year with a story set in 1995.

The Disney train isn’t slowing down either. Disney has 84 release dates on the calendar through 2023, including 13 Marvel movies, two Avatar sequels, six Pixar movies, more Star Wars, and a host of live-action remakes and originals. 

So is this actually a bad thing?

Maybe? Disney is not leaving a lot of room for other kinds of movies to get the breathing room they need. But other studios have to step up their game and make good content people actually want to see. 2019 has had its fair share of box office bombs, and many of those have been big-name franchises.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix ended the franchise that kicked off the modern superhero movie craze with a pathetic whimper. Audiences and critics alike hated it. Dark Phoenix is just the beginning, too. Terminator: Dark Fate, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Men in Black: International, Hellboy, The Shining sequel Doctor Sleep and Charlie’s Angels are all reboots or sequels to formerly beloved franchises that have flopped or underperformed in 2019.

There is some good news outside of Disney, though. Joker made headlines around the world and made a billion dollars for Warner Bros. It: Chapter Two, while not as successful as its predecessor, was a win for the horror genre. Zombieland: Double Tap and the final installment of the How to Train Your Dragon franchise were also welcomed for both audiences and critics.

And it’s even harder for original stories. Some, like Quentin Tarantino’s latest Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, performed well and others surprised us, like Hustlers. Expectations are different for smaller movies as well. Us or Booksmart didn’t have to make a billion dollars to be considered successes.  

Does any of this matter?

If you love Disney, then you probably don’t care that much. As long as they keep making Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar movies, you’ll be happy. And I would be too. But there has to be a balance between nostalgia and new stories.

Next year will be interesting for Disney. They’ll kick off the next phase of the MCU – a soft reboot without Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr., and will have to figure out the future of Star Wars too.

The cinematic landscape is changing. One of the reasons I think the streaming wars have become so heated is because of audiences’ changing interests in movies. Netflix is now premiering movies that are in the running for Best Picture at the Oscars. Streaming offers more availability for more stories to be created and theaters will still offer an experience no home surround sound can match. I’ll continue to be an advocate for going to see movies in theaters, but the most important thing is that you watch, no matter where that may be.

Disney still makes great movies and has a strong brand identity that audiences can trust. But I challenge everyone to get out of your comfort zones every now and then and see a movie you don’t know much about. Go see The Rise of Skywalker in theaters, but then go watch Booksmart one night at home. It’s on Hulu. There’s so much out there to satisfy whatever cravings you have, and there’s plenty of room at the table.

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